By: Jean Marie Twambaze
To see more of Twambaze’s Photographs of Akegara National Park and wildlife, please click here
I guided a Rwandan tourist named Josiane through Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda back in 2015. It was her first trip to the park in decades and she told me, “We used to leave Kigali in the morning hours and, after entering the park, we would only drive a very short distance before seeing a lot of animals, including the rare lions, leopards and rhinos, before we drove back to Gabiro for a BBQ. I can’t count how many hyenas we would spot just on one day trip. Now we have to start very early in the morning, and drive for hours and hours in search of big predators. Sometimes we don’t see any at all because they are so few left.” It was on this journey that I fell in love with this often-ignored gem. And I can happily report that Akagera is now a safe home for Africa’s “Big Five” — lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo — and other incredibly diverse wildlife.
Akagera National Park is the biggest park in Rwanda, covering 433 square miles (1,122 sq km) and the only savanna park in this beautiful country of a thousand hills. It was among the first parks to be created in Africa. It was founded in 1934 to protect the plants and animals in three eco-regions: savanna, mountain and swamp.
The main focus was conserving nature for scientific purposes — no tourism activities were allowed in the park, no changes to the landscape were to be made, no trace of human activity was to be left behind. This policy might have worked for a government that had enough resources to fund the protection and daily management of the park, which Rwanda did not have at that time. The country simply didn’t have the funding to sustain the well-being of such a rich and diverse environment.
After a few decades, Akagera started reaching for more. Between 1957 and 1958, six black rhinos were introduced into the park, which was a milestone event because Akagera would become a new Big Five destination in Africa. It is said that they reproduced to a total number of 90 before disappearing — the last sighting of a black rhino was recorded in 2007.
In the 1960s, the management of Akagera came under the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, a decision that marked the beginning of Akagera’s worst struggles. The park faced an insufficient budget, a lack of trained personnel, poor conservation policies and substandard equipment. People living near and in the buffer zones began a devastating campaign against the wildlife through poaching and illegal hunting. Encroachments on the park’s boundaries reached alarming levels as people sought more land for agriculture and grazing pastures.
These dilemmas were putting the park’s survival in jeopardy, so the government decided to open it up to tourism. The money generated would help with the management of the park, but it did not address biodiversity conservation. Despite being visited by local and international tourists, the issues surrounding severe poaching, illegal grazing, human-wildlife conflicts, land degradation, and the spread of exotic and invasive species had yet to be tackled.
The 1970s saw some great improvements to the park. Elephants were successfully relocated into the park to help protect and boost the diminishing population. According to archives from that time, about 300 lions were roaming the park and thousands of antelopes, zebras and buffaloes flourished in the savanna. In 1986, six Maasai giraffes were donated by the Kenyan government and introduced — today Akagera has an estimated 80 giraffes.
The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda took the lives of more than million Rwandans. It was also disastrous for the park, which was essentially abandoned. When the genocide was finally ended by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the returning refugees occupied an even bigger part of the park for farmland, settlement and cattle. Within a few years, the park was home to more than forty thousand cattle. The Rwandan government decided to officially downsize the park in 1997 and give land to the returning refugees, but with an aim to seriously protect the remaining land and its biodiversity. However, due to a lack of expertise and a serious shortage of tourism revenue, the park continued to experience high levels of poaching and boundary encroachment.
Another landmark event for Akagera occurred in 2009. The nonprofit conservation organization African Parks partnered with Rwanda’s development board to create a 20-year management agreement. Through this agreement, a new entity called the Akagera Management Company became responsible for the day-to-day management of Akagera National Park.
The Rwanda Development Board, Akagera Management Company and African Parks started making huge investments in the rehabilitation of Akagera following this agreement, and a new chapter began. First, a 75-mile electric fence was constructed along the western boundaries to monitor attempts to illegally enter the park. This fence has dramatically reduced human-wildlife conflict outside and illegal activities inside the park.
New conservation policies were put in place, an anti-poaching team was trained and well equipped to patrol every inch of the park, and a canine team was formed to track poachers and detect any snares set inside the park. These were important and welcome efforts, but it was the creation of a law enforcement building that really established sustainable and effective control of the park.
In 2015, seven lions were translocated from South Africa to reintroduce the species into the park. This event had the whole country celebrating, as seen in the National Geographic documentary about these big cats, “Return of the Lion.” The five female and two male lions started roaming the park — and were soon raising cubs. The first generation of lion cubs in two decades has brought Akagera’s lion population up to twenty.
In 2017, 18 eastern black rhinos were reintroduced into Akagera, another milestone in the history of the park after a decade with no rhinos. All were thrilled when a new calf was born later that year. These land giants of the savanna woodland finally gave Akagera its Big Five status. In return, this endangered species is provided a safe home where it is hoped that they will thrive. Today, there are less than 1,000 eastern black rhinos left in the wild.
Conservation without the involvement of the local community is almost impossible. Akagera management takes this seriously and aims to put the local community at the center of its conservation efforts, working with locals to ensure the safety of the wildlife as well as the people living around the park.
The park’s first course of action was introducing its “Giving Back to the Community” plan, where 5 percent of park revenue is given to the local community. This plan benefits community projects and infrastructure development. Schools were built and health care for families in need who live near the park is paid for. Clean water is also being provided so that people don’t have to depend on water sources in the park or walk long distances in search of water in the dry season.
One of the most important and interesting aspects of involving the local community is the park’s focus on employing and training locals for any available vacancies. A freelance guide initiative was formed to develop the skills of local youth — and inspire them to be future conservationists. These youth now play a big role in giving visitors a great experience. This initiative enables them to provide guiding services and generate more income as the number of visitors continues to increase. This plan is bridging the gap between tourism in the park and the local community while boosting community revenue and providing additional services to park visitors.
A new community center is being developed just outside the park. Once launched, it will incorporate activities for the community as well as visitors. There will be space for environmental education, selling community products and project innovation. It will also contain a hall for educational films and dormitories for students visiting the park.
Akagera National Park is among the few promising parks in Africa today. The latest aerial census shows that the animal population continues to increase, which can be attributed to reinforced security and well-trained rangers. If I compare Josiane’s experience to a visit today, there are dramatic differences.
The road to Akagera used to be unpaved and in very bad condition. Today it is much improved, offering faster and smoother access to the park. The roads and tracks inside the park have also been improved, and new ones were created to provide better accessibility to animal concentration areas and improve the experience of those visiting Akagera’s wilderness.
For the first time, Akagera has tented eco-lodges, including an award-winning luxury lodge called Ruzizi. Akagera Game Lodge offers guests great facilities and panoramic views. Wilderness Safaris is working on new accommodation in the northern part of the park and there are other projects outside of the park, such as a Lake Ihema campsite owned by the local community. These facilities will tackle Akagera’s accommodation issues and cater to every type of guest.
A visit to Akagera National Park today not only offers a taste of wildlife, it also contributes to the sustainable protection of their habitat and the well-being of the local community.
As Akagera Park Manager Jes Gruner explains, “The tourism industry, alongside continued conservation, holds the key to unlocking a brighter future for Akagera and Rwanda as a whole. That’s why we’re working to expand the park’s offering through the reintroduction of wildlife and the development of exceptional tourism offerings.”